RIP Maryanne Amacher
Posted: Oct 29, 2009
Maryanne Amacher, 71, Visceral Composer, Dies
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: October 28, 2009
Maryanne Amacher, an influential composer whose experimental sound installations and multimedia works sometimes required full buildings to present their powerful melding of electronic timbres and live, natural ambience, died on Thursday in Rhinebeck, N.Y. She was 71 and lived in Kingston, N.Y.
Ms. Amacher’s death was announced by Micah Silver and Robert The, artists and friends of Ms. Amacher who recently began assembling an online archive of her work at maryanneamacher.org.
Ms. Amacher was drawn to extremes: some of her scores — for example, the music she composed for the choreographer Merce Cunningham’s “Torse” (1976) — could be so soft as to be nearly inaudible at times. But more typically, she reveled in powerful, high-volume sensory assaults, combining high-pitched electronic chirping and solid bass drones to produce a visceral effect.
“With three tape recorders and a huge set of speakers spread out around a darkened room,” Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times after a performance at the Kitchen in 1988, “she used immense volume to make sound feel liquid, all-enveloping, as if it were pouring into ears, between fingers and through hair. Ms. Amacher layered her noises — buzzing tones wrapped in sandstorm textures, rumblings like faraway thunder storms late at night, an idling motorcycle, jets swooping by — into an apocalyptic, terrifying landscape.”
Many of Ms. Amacher’s most notable works are known only by reputation. They were site-specific installations that would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to recreate, although several have been staged in new versions for different locations. Moreover, the handful of recordings that offer samples of her scores barely do them justice: Ms. Amacher was less concerned with sound on its own terms than with the way sound was perceived in space and over extended time periods.
For her “Music for Sound-Joined Rooms” series, which began with a weeklong installation in Minneapolis in June 1980, she took over a Victorian house lent to her by the conductor Dennis Russell Davies and filled its rooms with visual elements that could seem mysterious or whimsical. In one room, visitors found music stands holding diagrams of DNA, as well as petri dishes filled with unidentified substances and metal instrument cases marked “Fragile: Traveling Musicians Being Prepared,” as if an orchestra were being cloned from the material in the dishes. And every room was filled with sound, which was heard not only through speakers, but traveling from room to room through the floorboards and walls.
In Ms. Amacher’s “City-Links” series, which she began in 1967 and returned to periodically through the 1990s to create 22 installations in all, sounds from different locations within a city — or several cities — were transmitted over telephone lines and mixed together. In the first, she placed microphones at five locations in Buffalo and mixed the sounds transmitted from each site for a 28-hour live radio broadcast. Other pieces in the series used sounds from the harbors of Boston and New York. In “City-Links 15,” Ms. Amacher combined sound from New York, Boston and Paris for a live broadcast carried by WBAI-FM in New York and Radio France Musique in Paris.
“I was particularly interested in the experience of ‘Synchronicity,’ hearing spaces distant from each other at the same time, which we do not experience in our lives,” she told the composer Alan Licht in a 1999 interview for The Wire.
Ms. Amacher was born in Kane, Penn., in 1938, although in recent years she tended to list her date of birth as 1943. After studying the piano at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, she completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where her principal composition teacher was George Rochberg. She also studied composition in Salzburg, Austria, and Dartington, England, and privately with Karlheinz Stockhausen.
After presenting early works, including the first few pieces in the “City-Links” series, during fellowships at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was invited by the composer John Cage to collaborate on several projects. She produced a storm soundtrack for Cage’s multimedia “Lecture on the Weather” (1975), as well as a sound environment piece, “Close Up,” which accompanied Cage’s 10-hour solo voice work, “Empty Words” (1978). For Cunningham, she produced “Torse” and several other evening-length works from 1974 to 1980.
Ms. Amacher, who left no surviving relatives, taught electronic music at Bard College, beginning in 2000. She was also an important influence for a generation of composers who combined rock instrumentation and avant-garde sensibilities, among them Rhys Chatham and Thurston Moore. The documentary film “Day Trip Maryanne,” by Andrew Kesin, captures discussions and performance collaborations between Ms. Amacher and Mr. Moore.